Upper Valley food scene has grown more diverse, more informed over the years


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-21-2021 9:42 PM

The shortage of restaurant workers in the Upper Valley has been well-documented, but one factor has gone unexamined.

There are a lot of restaurants, food trucks, caterers, sandwich shops, roadside stands, diners, food markets, farmers markets, dining halls — a lot of places selling food.

For longtime residents, this can be a bit hard to take in. It’s now possible to get passable — if not downright enjoyable — tacos from Randolph to Claremont and at many points in between.

The same goes for barbecue, which used to be scarce, but is now suddenly plentiful. Between them, Hanover and Lebanon host four Thai restaurants.

How did this happen?

Not by design, and not all at once.

There’s been a wave of recent growth, sparked by greater interest in local food, changing tastes and a growing population, including transplants from places that have lively food scenes.

Hanover resident Chris Ng, who started the Upper Valley Foodie page on Facebook, dates the current wave to the transformation of White River Junction, where the windows of Tuckerbox, a café by morning and a Turkish restaurant for lunch and dinner, look out at Phnom Penh Sandwich Station, a Cambodian restaurant in the former Polka-Dot Diner. On Tuckerbox’s other side is Piecemeal Pies and down the street are Big Fatty’s, a beer and barbecue place, and Trailbreak Taps and Tacos.

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Those places, he noted, followed an earlier wave that brought in the Tip Top Café in 2002 (which is now called Thyme) and Elixir at the other end of the decade.

“Tuckerbox came in and ‘wow,’ ” Ng said over coffee at Lucky’s Coffee Garage in Lebanon. “That gave great competition to Hanover, where Hanover used to be the great place for restaurants.”

Ng grew up in Hong Kong and came to the Upper Valley in 1985 after living in Toronto and Brooklyn. His wife is from Thetford. He works as a wealth adviser at Ledyard Financial Advisors.

He likes food and enjoys cooking at home as well as keeping up with restaurants. He knows the names of restaurant owners and chefs and remembers places like Café la Fraise, a French restaurant that had a 10-year run in Hanover from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, that newcomers won’t recall.

“I think it’s perhaps the growth of the area,” Ng said of the food revolution. “It’s becoming more metropolitan.”

And, “people dine out more often.”

Slowly, but then quickly, the Upper Valley has seen a revolution in its dining landscape, from formality and artifice to a kind of looser, more improvisational and authentic style. Eating out has been democratized.

When Josh and Joe Tuohy were painting and cleaning up the space they turned into Salt hill Pub in downtown Lebanon, four or five people ducked their heads in and said, “You know, this place is cursed,” Josh Tuohy recalled recently.

That was 18 years ago, and it’s safe to say that any curse has been broken.

“There’s a lot more to do and a lot of different places to eat than there used to be,” Tuohy said.

Food options have expanded outside the core towns of the Upper Valley, too. Lyme has multiple dining choices within walking distance in the village; Poor Thom’s Tavern has made a home in Meriden; Samurai Soul Food has carved out a niche in Fairlee; Randolph is home to Saap, a celebrated Thai restaurant.

Woodstock has long had plentiful dining options, starting with an early wave of restaurant openings. Barnard resident Jim Reiman and friends Patty and Marc Milowsky opened The Prince and the Pauper in 1974. They had worked together at the Sirloin Saloon, a Burlington-area restaurant, and decided to open their own place.

Two years later, they opened Jesse’s Restaurant, on the Hanover-Lebanon line. They had several other partners, including Jesse Ware, who owned Real Log Homes, built the original restaurant and gave it its name.

In a way, restaurants like Jesse’s; The Prince and the Pauper; Murphy’s on the Green, which opened in Hanover in 1992; Stone Soup, which opened in Strafford in the mid-1980s; Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corners; and others, form a kind of foundation that the growing food scene rests on.

Before those restaurants, Reiman said, there was a sharp divide between fine dining — at places like the Woodstock Inn, the Hanover Inn, the Hotel Coolidge and other white tablecloth establishments, and everything else: diners, fast food, a few family restaurants and roadside stands.

Prior to that era, attitudes toward food were more utilitarian.

After World War II, America took on the role of feeding the world, Martha Lorden, a cook, food truck operator, cookbook reviewer, food historian and retired Hanover High School social studies teacher, said in an interview.

Lorden grew up in Claremont, a member of the Esersky family. Her grandmother ran a bakery and made black bread for Polish and Russian immigrant families.

“There’s always been a kind of aplomb associated with cooking in the Esersky family,” Lorden said.

In the post-war years, “better living through chemistry” and “condensed milk in a can” were the order of the day, Lorden said. People who needed nourishment weren’t overly concerned about authenticity. But as the economy grew and became more globalized, palates became more sophisticated.

Beyond the food trends of the 1970s and ’80s, when eating out became less formal and less expensive, “the generation that followed certainly was much more educated about food,” Reiman said.

By then, chefs had been on TV for years, from Julia Child to Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali, and people had traveled to where dishes originated.

“This next wave of customers were much more highly educated and knew what they wanted,” Reiman said.

What then would have been lumped under the heading of “ethnic food” was virtually non-existent.

Ng said that when he moved to the Upper Valley there were two Chinese restaurants, the Pagoda, where Steve’s Pet Shoppe now resides in Lebanon, and China Lite, then in the West Lebanon plaza near LaValley Building Supply.

Classic New England Greek-style pizza was then widely available.

Now, Asian food is everywhere, to the point where Ng once maintained a Facebook page solely about local Chinese restaurants. Pizza is more widespread, if only slightly more diverse.

Jewel of India opened in Hanover in 1992; Mel and Damaris Hall served food from across Africa in White River Junction; Yama appeared in West Lebanon and Gusanoz opened on Miracle Mile in Lebanon, to be followed by the taco shops and taco trucks. From arepas to samosas, the global banquet is closer at hand.

“The Upper Valley is really supportive of food adventures,” Lorden said.

Increasingly, information about where to eat, as with all information, has moved online. People used to hear about a new place through word of mouth, Reiman said. The Upper Valley Foodie Facebook page is full of odd requests for information. Who’s got the best sweet corn? Where’s the best Chinese food?

To Ng, those requests kind of miss the point. How do you find out what’s “best” to your own taste buds unless you go try it yourself? The internet is no substitute for local knowledge.

“I can’t say that I know what good Thai food is,” he said. “I haven’t had time to learn that yet.”

If diners are more open to new experiences and can have them at reasonable prices, they’re also more often in a hurry, Reiman noted. There are plenty of opportunities to savor a meal, and people seek out those experiences, but just as often meals are as quick and casual as they are flavorful.

That’s not always a bad thing. What worries Lorden is when people seek food experiences as value judgments. Yes, organic food deserves support, and local food keeps money in the community, but that older way of eating that takes only cost and daily needs into account retains its validity.

“There’s a philosophy wrapped up around producing food right now that is trending,” she said. But the idea that there’s “good and proper food” and “bad and evil food,” she said, “that tension has always bothered me.”

Painted across the front and back of her bright orange food truck, Martha’s on a Roll, is the slogan she lives by: “Eat everything.” That’s not an invitation to gluttony, but an encouragement to give things a try.

The food truck — not just hers, but the proliferation of them — is an open invitation. Now in her fourth season on wheels, Lorden serves up American comfort food, but other trucks dispense global street food and other fare from distant cultures.

Waiting for his order at Martha’s on a Roll outside Dan and Whit’s in Norwich on Wednesday morning, Jeff Dunning talked about the food truck he started this summer. Texas-style barbecue is his niche. The benefits of running a food truck are many, he said.

“The mobility, the lower overhead, the option of having my own business rather than having to work for the man,” Dunning said.

It’s a grind, he added. He’s working up to 100 hours a week.

Lorden said she’s scaled back a bit.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll do the food truck,” she said. But “making and selling food is a great way to connect with people.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.